I wouldn’t be writing about something so banal as email if I didn’t think that I’d found a set of useful tools for coping with a constant influx of messages. After years of being frustrated by having to spend too much time managing my email, I have finally hit on a strategy that allows me to have an empty inbox at the end of every day while still being able to find any old messages that I may need. I have adapted my strategy primarily from two very helpful blog posts by Gina Trapani on keeping your inbox empty and separating your email from your to do lists. (Her strategies, in turn, derive from Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and David Allen’s Getting Things Done.)
Below I outline my method for incorporating email into my workflow. This method presupposes that you have what David Allen calls a "leakproof system" for keeping track of both individual tasks and larger projects. In other words, you have a system for managing your "to do" lists and for filing and organizing materials for all your projects, big and small, with a project being understood as any job that requires more than one step to be completed. For me, that system is basically David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" (GTD), which is very flexible and holistic. (In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I should say that it took me about 3 tries, over 3-4 years, to fully implement a GTD-style leakproof system, but the payoff has been immense.) You should, of course, use whatever system works best for you.
Here are my basic strategies for dealing with email:
I don’t use email as a to-do list to track my obligations. (I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this principle — separating email from task management was probably the most important step I took towards getting control over email.) If I have an email message that I cannot process when I read it the first time, I convert the message into an action item on my paper-based task list. (I’ve found, contrary to GTD, that having an "Action" folder in email simply doesn’t work. The folder gets clogged, and pretty soon I’m wasting time sifting through the folder.) If I can process a message in a minute or so, I try to go ahead and deal with it to avoid transferring it to my list.
Rather than processing email messages as they come in, I try to work on email a few times per day, at times when I am less likely to be productive on other fronts. For instance, in between classes, I process email for 15-20 minutes as a way to have some down time before preparing for the next class. The result (or the goal, anyway) is that email doesn’t interrupt my other work by breaking my concentration. I find that it helps to set email to check hourly in order to minimize interruptions; sometimes, I simply close my email client.
I have a very limited number of folders that I use for processing and archiving email. At any given time, I have a few project specific folders, but I reserve these only for major, ongoing projects, such as the courses that I am teaching during a given semester. My other key folders derive from GTD and include:
- "Waiting For" (This folder is reserved strictly for cases where I am waiting for somebody else to do something specific — I don’t use this to track my own tasks that I am putting off!)
- "Follow Up" (This folder includes messages that I need to reply to after I have completed some task; again, I track these tasks outside of email.)
- "Future" (This folder includes just a few messages at a time that I need for major future events; this category isn’t strictly necessary, but I find that I can keep it under control. It’s probably better, for the sake of parsimony, to simply print and file such messages in a tickler file or a folder for the future event.)
- "Archive" (This folder, which I clean out and archive on my computer on a semester-by-semester basis, holds messages that I may need for future reference. With today’s search capabilities, it’s usually quite easy to locate needed messages.)
- "Print/Save" (I use this folder to temporarily hold messages and attachments that I need to print or download to my primary computer. Having these folders really helps me clean out my inbox, even if I am using webmail.)
I use these same folders for my personal email account as well, with the addition of a "Business" folder where I store all messages related to personal finances, such as statements and receipts; I archive this folder annually.
By consistently adhering to these principles, I find that I can keep my inbox empty most of the time — certainly by the end of each work day. To keep the system flowing smoothly, I regularly review the folders mentioned above to keep them pruned to just a few or several messages each and to make sure that I’m not procrastinating on some task. Instead of being a grand distraction, email is now a fairly innocuous part of my work-flow.